Big Old Fanny: Fan y Big (it’s a hill!)

So we were pottering about on Pen y Fan yesterday and my kids spotted Fan y Big a couple of peaks along.

‘FANNY BIG!’ Yes, of course (I’ll correct it later). So I said we could climb it.

We went back to the hotel room and Googled, and found that poor little Fan y Big had – just 2 hours earlier – been reported by the BBC as demoted from “mountain” to “hill” — because, despite being high enough at 2,351ft (716.6m), the col (bit between two peaks) wasn’t sufficiently lower to qualify. Or something. Either way, there was a measly 1.5m of rock missing for it to retain its mountainous reputation, and it was now registered as a hill.

How rude.

This was like finding out that Pluto wasn’t a planet ALL OVER AGAIN. But worse, because this is a mountain on our very own home planet.

So we decided to climb Fan y Big to place a rock on top

because every little helps. If enough people stick a rock on top, we can make Fan y Big big again.

Up we went.

As I said in my previous post, this week we’re flying by the seat of our pants, with our hospital visits, our impromptu decision to head into South Wales, our last minute hotel, and our NO RELEVANT PAPER MAPS. Yes, I’m kicking my own soap box from under my feet (always take a paper map…). I tried to prod my OS app into gear and it did download the local map but then conked out at the car park before we even reached the mountain and so I had to hope that we’d reached the correct car park at Neuadd Reservoir.

We hadn’t.

So what to do? Turn back and wait for a day of proper maps? It was a clear day and we had a downloaded jpg map and a compass; I decided to trek north for a couple of miles and see. We had all the other usual stuff – proper boots and clothes, first aid, waterproofs, food, water, etc.

Turns out it was fine. We found the Taf Fechan forest and cut northwest turning north-ish along a clearly marked path, which led right along the flanks of the mountain — sorry, “hill” — up to Bwlch ar y Fan. It was a clear day, the path was obvious, and I figured if it got murky, we could just turn back. As we walked, the clear shapes of Corn Du and Pen y Fan rose above us to the NNW and there was absolutely no chance of getting lost. So we just carried on.

Fan y Big sits just east of Bwlch ar y Fan and the final approach is quite steep but short. We hit this in the early afternoon, when the wind had picked up. I’d checked the forecast and gales weren’t expected but the wind was gusting from the west / southwest more strongly than forecast and some fairly thick clouds were coming over the horizon. I didn’t bother checking updated forecasts or precise directions: I had three kids and no map; we were going home. Since we were only a few yards away, I gave us a few minutes to get up to the summit (or not), smile at the camera, and scuttle back down again so we were in no danger of being lost in cloud.

We scampered up a diagonal SE sheep path (actually a mapped footpath but looks identical to the sheep paths that criss-cross the hills) to reach the summit, because the more direct easterly route was edged by a drop-off and the wind was fairly gusty. I don’t like drop-offs and avoid them when I can. Therefore we approached the summit from the south again, along the top ridge. This has excellent all-round views, and the moody skies made it all the more striking. It was gorgeous.

Across the lower land to the north, we could see the dappled sunlight-and-shade vista changing as the clouds moved. In an ideal world, we would have sat up there for hours — but that would have to be another day.

There was also a jutting stone that looked like a death launch pad sticking out from the summit, over a drop.


For Youngest’s sake, we stopped for a quick bagel and drink in a tiny, dry stone shelter up at the top, whose historical significance was unknown to me, but it made a great wind break. My children reminded me of hobbits cowering beside the entrance of Mordor and the approaching clouds enhanced the ominous feel. We popped our carried-up rock on the summit (Fan y Big is now a little weightier up top, yeyyy!) and ran back down.

When we reached the meeting point of the sheep paths, out of interest, I asked the kids to navigate. This was interesting: they picked a sheep path heading in roughly the right direction, so close that even I wondered about it – but the nature of sheep paths is that they are hidden by long grass, especially in the wind and in a hurry, and this one seemed to edge just slightly less steeply than the one we’d ascended – so I asked them to check. Turns out there was another just 4-5 metres further down the slope, fully hidden from view even a few feet away. It was a really great opportunity to show the kids how easy it is to gallop up a path to a summit and how difficult it can be just minutes later in clear daylight to find the very same path down to safety.

(OK, this particular slope, heading down the west side of Fan y Big, is very forgiving and you could stomp across some of it with little danger other than sheep poo and pot holes, but it was an interesting navigational exercise. The same can’t be said of the east side which is a steep, dangerous drop. In fog, losing a path up here could be disastrous.)

The descent turned out to be a bit taxing for Youngest who hadn’t slept well the night before, so even though he can normally manage these walks with ease, today I slid my rucksack round to the front and popped my child on my back. This is WAY easier than trying to balance a half-grown child on top of a rucksack because you end up balanced and able to just walk normally. After a few hundred yards, reassured that he could hitch a lift if need be, he dropped down and walked independently again.

As we hiked back, the clouds engulfed Corn Du and then Pen y Fan, but our last view of Fan y Big was clear. We sat, chewing on sweets and watching the skyscape evolve. So dangerous but so beautiful.

‘So,’ I said, as my youngest child regained his energy and started to run around again, ‘who fancies Cadair Idris?’

I have the map for that. And they do.




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